Graph: More Visas, Less Illegal Immigration

The graph below comes from University of Pennsylvania economist Douglas Massey.

Graph Immigration Smaller

It depicts the three ways Mexican migrants have come to the United States–guest work programs, permanent residency visas, or illegally. You can see how low illegal immigration was during the 1950s, despite basically no border security—just a few thousand daily crossers. But as the Bracero program, which granted unlimited guest work visas to Mexican workers, was phased out, illegal entries begin to tick up, and after it is eliminated in 1965, they explode—fully replacing annual legal entries within a decade.

Later, you can even see a huge drop in illegal entries after the infamous 1986 legalization under Reagan. At the tale end of the graph, visas again increase under the Bush administration, and illegal immigration falls (even before the recession). Although not conclusive, all this evidence highly suggests that illegal immigration might go away if we freed up work visas, diverting would-be illegal immigration into legal channels.

Massey notes another important fact. It was only after Bracero was eliminated that people began to refer to Mexican migration as a “crisis,” “flood,” or “invasion.” Prior to 1965, Massey demonstrates, leading U.S. newspapers almost never used those terms in connection with immigration, despite high levels of Mexican legal immigration, but by 1979, after years of closed-border policies, there were almost three articles per month that included such descriptions. In other words, there was no immigration crisis, not even in people’s minds, until Congress created one.